How Dog Training is a Lesson in Natural Time

Whenever we’re learning a new skill, each of us has a unique learning curve for how long it takes us to embody it. Whether it’s learning to surf, cook a new desert, or speak a new language, honoring the time it takes us to learn and embody something new is essential, because the bottom line is that embodiment cannot be rushed.

In Nia, the principle that explores this concept is called Natural Time.

These days, I’m inspired to describe Natural Time by sharing a story about our two 4-month old golden retriever puppies, Luna and Suri, who so beautifully embody this principle.

Luna and Suri are similar in many ways: they’re sisters from the same litter, are being raised under the same roof, and have roughly the same daily eat, walk, play and sleep schedule. They also have the same positive-psychology dog trainer and their training practices are put into action somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 million times a day. 

Now despite all of these similarities, each pup learns things at a slightly – and sometimes significantly – different pace.

Suri, for example, learned not to jump or bark at other people or dogs almost immediately. Her learning curve in this department was short. For whatever reason, it just seemed like an easy skill for her to learn what to do when she approached humans or other dogs: sit quietly.

Luna, on the other hand, just couldn’t help herself. Even if I was standing there with treats in hand, using the same commands we used for Suri, she would jump and pull, and get overly anxious about meeting people. It’s taken Luna 3x as long to learn this skill as Suri. The good news is after tons of practice, she’s learning that “sit” is the first action she should do upon approaching someone, and of course this is transforming much of her anxiety into calmness.

When it came to house-breaking the dogs, Luna was quicker to learn how to communicate that she needed to go outside. We hung sleigh bells by our front door and worked at training the dogs to ring them whenever they needed to go out, and reinforced it with an insane level of treating and praise. (Whatever brilliant human came up with the idea to hang bells by a door – bless you. It works!)

Luna learned quickly to hit the bells, so that no matter where we were in the house, we’d hear them and run down to take her out. Suri had a slightly longer learning curve in this area – she would go to the front door, but didn’t always ring the bell…which often resulted in a nice surprise on our floor. Although it took Suri longer to learn this skill, I’m happy to say both dogs now use it 90% of the time.

The point I want to illustrate is that both dogs have their own Natural Time: the organic pace at which they learn to embody certain skills. Humans and choreography are no different…

If you placed 20 strangers in a room all with a dance background (or no dance background) and taught them the same choreography, I guarantee each person would learn it at different pace. This process is organic, and that’s why we call it “natural” time. Natural Time honors the unique learning speed of each person, recognizing that no two people have the same learning curve.

Natural Time is different from Mechanical Time. An example of operating under Mechanical Time would be telling everyone they’ve got 60 minutes to learn a brand new sequence of choreography. There are certain modalities of dance that operate this way and while the pressure of “restricted time” may work for some, the reality for many is that it creates an undue amount of stress that can impede learning.

Whenever I used to dance in routine shoots with my partner Vickie, I always marveled at the speed at which she embodied choreography. As a trained contemporary dancer, it’s almost second nature to her to see something, then repeat it. If you ever see us in a video together, it’s pretty entertaining to watch. My choreographic learning curve is a few clicks behind her's. And to be clear: I am so ok with it, because that’s my natural time. If I tried to rush it, I’d feel anxious and it would take even longer to learn. By allowing myself time and space to learn things at my own pace, embodiment naturally follows.

My hope and intention as a teacher is that each person who dances with me connects with their own natural time and feels the sense of permission to learn at their own pace. Choreography offers us a structured map for movement, but how we follow and dance this map is guided by us.

Whether it’s a dog learning to sit, spin, and wait, or a human learning to perform a jazz square, Natural Time has it’s place in all species and styles of movement.